Response by Aisha Gill
I arrived at Essex University in 1993 and never looked back.
Growing up in the 1980s in an inner-city area in the East Midlands meant dealing with racism, poverty, social exclusion and various other inequalities on a day-to-day basis. Having five siblings didn't help. Neither did the fact that I was not expected to do well educationally. When I got suspended from school at age 14 for clowning around in the playground, my father's belief that I was a hopeless case was cemented.
A few years later, in order to assert my independence I had to leave home. At the time, 17-year-old Asian women did not go against their family's wishes and make their own choices. But I did, and was subsequently disowned by my immediate family. I had no contact with them for over a decade. This rejection stirred my anger and I channelled all rage into my education.
Living in bedsit-land for 3 years in Bedford, I put myself through evening classes, passed my GCSES and started studying for my A-levels thank to support from charities and my local education authority. When I applied to Essex University, Dr Colin Samson interviewed me and I was offered a place on the condition that I got a C in Sociology. Of course I accepted, but I was determined to get an A – which I did.
I remember my first term being quite scary as I found it hard to settle into such a different lifestyle among so many students from different corners of the world. As the end of the first term approached, I began feeling increasingly anxious as I was one of the very few 'home' students who did not have a home to go to at Christmas.
Instead, I made Essex my home. To take my mind off my troubles, I undertook my first stint of charity work that December with a Colchester-based homeless charity. I used this experience as the foundation for my first year research project and got a 1st. Although this mark of success was hugely rewarding, more important was the fact that I'd discovered a passion for something that made a real, practical difference to other people’s lives.
I soon started working in the violence against women sector, and never stopped. I remained at Essex for my MA and then my PhD as I was lucky enough to receive scholarships to get me my through my studies. During this time, I decided to devote my research work to changing society's responses to violence against women: my mother's generation never had the support and so had suffered in silence.
By this time my close friends Tabz, Winks and Oonagh had become my surrogate family at Essex. Like a true family, they supported my passion for this work and, in 2002, together we raised £2,000 for a domestic violence charity. This was partly thanks to a generous donation from another friend who, although initially keen to sell his car before he left for Saudi Arabia, was persuaded to give it to me for free to be raffled off at the summer ball 'in a good cause'.
Essex University gave me a fantastic foundation for a career as an academic, a teacher, and as an activist, together centred on the desire to throw light on difficult social problems in order to nurture change. Since leaving in 2002 and joining the University of Roehampton, I've continually challenged misconceptions about violence against women and encouraged politicians to listen to the views of black, minority ethnic and refugee women when developing policy. My research has also helped to expose some of the many ways in which women around the world are victimised through violence, including in the UK, India and Iraqi Kurdistan, where I was involved in a two year project investigating the murder of women in the name of 'honour'. I have also been instructed as an expert witness in a number of so-called honour killing murder trials in recent years and have contributed to drafting legislation on VAW for the United Nations and the UK government. In September 2011 I was promoted to Reader in Criminology at the University of Roehampton where I teach a wide range of modules in criminology and supervise undergraduate and graduate dissertations. I remember Essex as a great place to learn. And I pay tribute to some of the intellectual 'giants' in the Department of Sociology – Colin Samson, Ken Plummer, Catherine Hall, Miriam Glucksmann and Nigel South. I could not have asked for better academic training, so it is wonderful to be acknowledged in this way. It is an absolute honour to receive this recognition.
For those of you graduating today who are interested in research and want to make a difference in the world, I urge you to remain steadfast. Getting a degree is only the beginning. Enjoy this special day. Celebrate with your loved ones and make the most of the opportunities cultivated here with your friends and lecturers to go for it. Education is power and opens so many doors. You just have to believe in yourself.
So, from the bottom of my heart – the only way is Essex!